The Kingdom Hearts series is infamous for having a long and confusing storyline. That reputation is amplified by the series’ bizarre naming scheme, which misleads many players into assuming they can play Kingdom Hearts, then Kingdom Hearts II, then Kingdom Hearts III, never realizing that they’ve skipped half a dozen important games in the middle. Now, though, all the games have received remixes, Kingdom Hearts III is so close we can taste it, and I’m here to try and explain the plot of the series up until this point.
My goal isn’t to go into every single nitty gritty detail, but to provide an overview that will help new players—or those who haven’t touched the series since Kingdom Hearts II—get a good idea of what’s actually going on. As such, parts of this write-up are intentionally simplified.
Begin reading part two below, covering Kingdom Hearts, parts of Kingdom Hearts 0.2: Birth by Sleep – A Fragmentary Passage, and parts of Kingdom Hearts II. And if you missed part one, be sure to read that first.
Heartless and Nobodies
When we left off, our villain, Xehanort, had just awakened as an amnesiac into his new body. With the the help of some conspirators he’d set up in advance, including his fellow apprentice Braig, Xehanort takes a position as an apprentice to a scientist named Ansem the Wise. Ansem the Wise, with the help of his six apprentices, is conducting research into the nature of the heart. Xehanort’s plan is still to find Kingdom Hearts, reforge the χ-Blade (now from the seven lights and 13 darknesses it originally split into), and provoke another Keyblade War, so this is the perfect place to be.
In his research, Ansem the Wise and his apprentices learn a few things about the nature of the world that are instrumental to understanding the rest of the series.
First, there’s the existence of Heartless. These creatures form naturally from the darkness in people’s hearts, with their strength depending on how much darkness is present. Ansem the Wise’s experiments on hearts consumed by darkness create a new breed of artificial Heartless. These artificial Heartless have two desires: to steal the hearts of others, which they covet (including the biggest prizes of all, the hearts of entire worlds), and to seek out Keyblade wielders, since the Keyblade holds power over hearts and can free them from darkness, permanently ending the Heartless’s miserable existence.
Second, there’s the existence of Nobodies. When a heart falls into darkness and becomes a Heartless, the body and mind are left behind as shells of the former person. While most fade, particularly strong shells continue to exist, forming monsters known as Nobodies. The strongest Nobodies of all retain their minds, memories, and original humanoid forms, looking and acting just as they did when fully human—but with no hearts.
If a Nobody dies, losing its body, and a Keyblade wielder kills its corresponding Heartless, freeing the heart, the lost body and heart can recombine back into one complete person.
Our villain, part three
These experiments on hearts and darkness quickly go wrong. Ansem the Wise begins prying into Xehanort’s heart, with the good intention of restoring his apprentice’s lost memories. These experiments open his world, Radiant Garden, up to the darkness between worlds, and his artificial Heartless pour through to invade other worlds. One by one, the stars begin going out as worlds are consumed by darkness. Horrified, Ansem the Wise calls a stop to the experiments. Xehanort, Braig, and the other four apprentices go behind his back and banish Ansem the Wise to the realm of darkness.
Xehanort and the apprentices continue to research in secret and form a group Xehanort dubs Organization XIII. They turn half of Ansem’s castle into a Heartless factory and begin publishing reports on the Heartless under Ansem’s name. Then Xehanort, still chasing his goal of creating seven lights and 13 darknesses to reform the χ-Blade, betrays them all.
Xehanort turns his keyblade on himself, the other apprentices, and two local boys, Lea and Isa. He splits all eight of them into Heartless and Nobodies.
Xehanort’s Heartless has the unique power of retaining human form and intelligence, and continues to call itself Ansem. Ansem unleashes more Heartless into the worlds and recruits a series of Disney villains to his side. He calls on the villains and the Heartless to capture the seven Princesses of Heart (Disney princesses each, plus Kairi), who he believes can be used as the seven lights.
Xehanort’s Nobody also retains human form and intelligence, and calls himself Xemnas (an anagram of Ansem with an added X). The other members of Organization XIII prove to be similarly strong, and take on similar names. (Notably, Braig becomes Xigbar, Lea becomes Axel, and Isa becomes Saix.) Xemnas fills their ranks with additional strong Nobodies, and plots to implant parts of his own personality in each one, creating the 13 darknesses.
In the chaos, the world of Radiant Garden is destroyed, becoming a distorted version of itself called Hollow Bastion. The world’s Princess of Heart, Kairi, is swept away and, protected by Aqua’s spell from her childhood, sent to Destiny Islands.
Finally, something familiar
Skip ahead a few years, and we’ve finally, finally, gotten to the first Kingdom Hearts and some familiar faces. Our main character, Sora, and his friends, Riku and Kairi, are three kids growing up on Destiny Islands, unaware of the fates that have been bestowed upon them. Sora and Riku maintain a friendly rivalry for Kairi’s attention, and all three dream of one day leaving their tropical paradise to explore the world. That dream abruptly ends when a version of Xehanort (separate from both Ansem and Xemnas, but that won’t make sense until part four) appears and opens the door connecting their world to others, the Heartless swarm reaches their world, and all is enveloped in darkness.
In the storm, Sora runs to look for Riku and Kairi. Riku stumbles across the door that opens their world to darkness, and, declaring that he’s not afraid of the darkness, steps through, despite Sora’s attempts to stop him. The keyblade that Terra granted to Riku long ago manifests, but too late—Riku has already given himself to darkness. Sora takes it instead, using its power to fight off the invading Heartless. He races after Kairi, catching up with her just as darkness begins to overwhelm their world. Kairi sends her heart to reside with Sora’s for protection and vanishes just as he reaches her and Destiny Islands is finally overwhelmed.
Sora is blown into another world, unknowingly carrying Kairi’s heart with him. Riku also makes it out, but Maleficent and the other Disney villains working under Ansem find him first. They recognize his potential as a keyblade wielder and begin to tempt him to darkness, turning him against Sora. Meanwhile, Sora meets Donald Duck and Goofy, who explain they’re on a mission. Their King Mickey is also a keyblade wielder, and he plans to lock away the hearts of worlds and Kingdom Hearts itself to prevent the spread of Heartless. The door to Kingdom Hearts is locked from two sides, the realm of darkness and the realm of light, and while Mickey hunts for the keyhole in the realm of darkness, Sora, Donald, and Goofy travel through various worlds in the light, locking away the worlds’ hearts to protect them and hunting for this final keyhole. Sora, not knowing what happened to Kairi, continues to look for her.
Buckle in, here’s where things get complicated
Sora’s first clash with Xehanort occurs in Hollow Bastion, the ruins of Kairi’s old world, where Ansem (Xehanort’s Heartless) is still operating and has gathered the Princesses of Heart. With them acting as the seven lights, Ansem believes he can open the way to Kingdom Hearts. He has Kairi’s body, but without Kairi’s heart, he can’t complete the operation.
Riku, now thoroughly corrupted by the darkness, overpowers Sora at the entrance to Hollow Bastion and reclaims his Keyblade. Sora’s heart proves stronger, though, and he calls the Keyblade back to him. Riku, confused and betrayed, goes to Ansem to ask why he wasn’t strong enough. Ansem tells him to completely submit himself to the darkness, and when Riku does so, Ansem merges with him to form an all-powerful being of darkness.
Sora fights Riku-Ansem, who detects that Kairi’s heart has been locked away in Sora the entire time. To free her, Sora turns his Keyblade on himself, in much the same process that Xehanort used to split himself into a Heartless and a Nobody, and several things happen at once as both Sora and Kairi are split.
- Sora’s Heartless appears, looking like one of the smallest and weakest Heartless possible, showing just how little darkness Sora had in him. For the next bit of the story, “Sora” is really “Sora’s Heartless.”
- Kairi also becomes a Heartless, though as a Princess of Heart, she retains her shape, memory, name, and most other human-like features, seeming mostly unaffected. She soon manages to restore Sora’s Heartless to the same humanoid state. For the next bit of the story, “Kairi” is really “Kairi’s Heartless.”
- Sora’s Nobody appears, many worlds away, where the other humanoid Nobodies are operating under Xemnas. His name is Roxas, and, due to the lingering impact of Ventus’s heart on Sora’s, Roxas looks just like Ventus. Roxas has no memories of where he came from, but retains the ability to wield a keyblade.
- Kairi’s Nobody appears, also many worlds away, in Castle Oblivion where Ventus’s body is sleeping. Her name is Naminé, and due to being created while a part of Sora, she has control of Sora’s memories.
The first villain, defeated
Sora clashes with Riku-Ansem again. Now that Kairi is free and all seven Princesses of Heart are assembled, Riku-Ansem is able to open the final doors sealing away Kingdom Hearts and pull them open. Where he expected to find darkness, though, he only finds light—strong enough light to completely destroy Ansem in his weakened state, obliterating Xehanort’s Heartless. Ansem is defeated, though Riku keeps his connection to the darkness and Ansem’s powers.
The threat’s not over, though, as thousands of Heartless wait in the darkness behind the door. Heroes are waiting to stop them, though. King Mickey, followed by Aqua, who fell into the darkness so long ago, wait in the realm of darkness on the other side, ready to seal it. When their strength isn’t enough, Riku also joins them in the realm of darkness, closing the door from that side while Sora locks it from the light side. As the door between realms closes and locks, Sora vows to find Riku again, somehow. Kairi is pulled back to Destiny Islands as the worlds begin to drift apart.
Though Ansem’s plan for the seven lights has been foiled, Xemnas’s plan to create the 13 darknesses continues in the background. And now, Xemnas has two even more powerful weapons in his arsenal: Sora and Kairi’s Nobodies, Roxas and Naminé.
Stay tuned for part three, covering the story of Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days, and more of Kingdom Hearts II.